Ancient civilizations, intricate myths starring magical beings, sun-drenched islands, shimmering blue seas and delectable cuisine are, no doubt, the first things that come to mind when thinking of Greece. Anyone who has travelled here will tell you about its outstanding natural beauty, the hospitality of the locals and the easy-going lifestyle apparent everywhere you look. Living in a country other than your own is like a long journey of discovery that, I guess, never ends. Here are just a few of the things I have learned since living in Hellas.
Expressing yourself loudly, with accompanying hand and body movements, is entirely normal and accepted. No one gets offended. Sick of waiting in line at some government office? Say it: loudly and clearly! Chances are, others will chime in and you will have a good complaining session - instant bonding! Think someone’s put on a few kilos? Declare it! Don’t like the food? Don’t just sit there, say something!
I spent the first year thinking that Greeks were rude and angry people, until I realised – it’s just their way. Even a normal conversation can sound like an argument for the uninitiated. You can have a blinding argument with someone one minute, next minute it’s all over and you will likely be invited for a coffee or a tsipouro, no grudges. Often the beginning of a lasting friendship starts with a heated exchange. It’s that Mediterranean blood, or something.
Although it does make life rather dramatic, ultimately I find it healthier than bottling it up and I have come to enjoy saying how I really feel, loudly and with the appropriate accompanying hand gesture. Definitely not many stiff upper lips around here!
Table manners are overrated
Sitting around a table, with your elbows off it, eating from one plate with a knife and fork and asking politely if someone could pass the salt - it seems so ridiculous when compared with the Greek style of dining. In this food centric society, meals are loud and boisterous, with much use of hands, bread and a single fork held in the right hand. It’s perfectly ok to stretch right across someone to grab something that you want, talk with your mouth full, wipe your hands on the table cloth and eat from all the plates, which are spread in the centre of the table. Once I got over myself and my Anglo-Saxon sensibilities, I realized how much more enjoyable mealtimes could be. Washed down with local wine, beer or tsipouro and plenty of political debate!
Blood is thicker than water
Here in Greece, its family first no matter what. Family members may be feuding on day to day basis, but when the chips are down, everyone comes running. You never have to face anything alone in Greece. There is a dependency on the family that is strange to one raised to be so independent; but it’s assuring too. Greek culture tends to concentrate more on the collective than the individual. We live, like so many, in a two storey house with my partner’s parents. Essentially two separate households, our lives are intertwined. Our children are upstairs or downstairs as they please. We have built in babysitters and we will care for them as they age. Financial and practical help, emotional support as well as Yaya’s home cooking, more than makes up for the limited privacy and occasional over involvement.
Slow down and live in the moment
Time in Greece is rather relaxed. Finishing something ‘in-time’ is not something overly worried about and being ‘on-time’, especially for social arrangements, bothers no one. Last minute cancellations are frequent and taken in stride. Masters of the eleventh hour, and incredibly inventive, I am always amazed by how quickly Greeks can pull something together, albeit it in total chaos, when the pressure is on.
The Greeks have been living in the present, long before it was a thing. If you bump into a friend in town, you will simply put off whatever errands you have for the day and immediately go for coffee. If you don’t feel like doing something, don’t; there is always tomorrow. The Greek word for tomorrow αύριο, was one of the first I learned, having heard it so much. Like most mañana societies this means that a lot doesn’t get done, which can be frustrating; the upside is a relaxed, less-pressured and flexible way of life
The Greek capacity for enjoyment of life is immediately evident to anyone who has been here and the achievement of κέφι, or ‘high spirits and relaxation’ important. Socialising is a way of life and at the centre of everything is food. Even in times of hardship, cafes are overflowing, restaurants are full and people are out and about until late.
And once you have expressed yourself, eaten from all the plates, been there for the family and learned to relax and enjoy the now; above all, the Greeks say, loudly and demonstratively, is our health. The word for health in Greek, Υγεία, is used to greet people Γειά σας (your health), to toast Στην Υγεία Σας/Μας! (to your/our health) and, one of the favourite sayings of all Greeks, Υγεία Πάνω απ’ όλα! Health above All!